Archive for Charles Willeford

Honey Gal by Charles Willeford (Beacon Books #160, 1955)

Posted in Beacon Books, noir fiction, pulp fiction, Vintage Sleaze Paperbacks with tags , , , , on January 8, 2011 by vintagesleazepaperbacks

In the mid-1950s, just about every title from Beacon was listed as “First Award Winner” whatever that was.  Here, again, we have a cover that has little to do with the text — from this cover, and the title, we’re lead to believe this may be a steamy farm or backwoods tale, when the novel is far, far from that.  It is another quirky offering from Willeford about identity, fraud, and lost dreams.

The narrator is a middle-aged man in Columbus, Ohio, who works as an accountant at a milk company and is married to a dull wife.  In quiet secret, he wrote a novel called No Bed Too High and sold it to the second publisher he mailed it to.  He got a $250 advance and publication in hardcover, but the novel did not do too well or make him famous.

Still, it’s a way out of this droll life, and the novel encourages him to dream of a new life, and against his wife’s desire, they move to Florida where he tries to write a second novel but nothing is there.

He wants out of this life of failure too. he feels like a hel for letting his wife down.  He sees an small item in the morning paper about a monestary in Orangeville that will close down due to money matters. he thinks there might be a magazine article in this, so he takes the train, only buying a one way ticket, already knowing in his heart he won’t return to his wife and their life.

He discovers that the monestary is run by a con man who has re-defined his life, much like Jay Gatsby.  The narrator sees that he can do, so he joins the outfit and becomes a monk, and later a Reverend, going ouit top do God’s work.

He, a white man of the cloth, is sent to Harlem. Looking at the cover art again, is the dark-skinned woman not tanned or Mexican but supposed to be black?

Like Willeford’s other first-person sociopaths that feel no remorse in their deceptions and lies, , this one plays at being righteous, leads prayers when he does not believe in God, and marries teenagers whom he has made feel guilty for their sinful sex out of wedlock.  He has eschewed his two previous failures of a life, and now has this…but his past, and the life he abandoned, have a way of finding him.

In some ways, this novel is akin to the absurdity of Albert Camus, and the narrator likes to reflect on Kafka and Russian tragedies in comparison to his life.  Here, again, is a book that could have been categorized as awork of literary merit, at the time, rather than a cheap paperback with a cover and title that does not fit the  fine words on the pages.

Honey Gal isn’t as good as Pick-Up or The Woman Chaser, no, but we highly recommend it and if you have never read Willeford, now is a good time.

Pick-Up by Charles Willeford (Beacon Books, 1955)

Posted in Beacon Books, crime noir, noir fiction, pulp fiction, Vintage Sleaze Paperbacks with tags , , , , , , , on November 7, 2010 by vintagesleazepaperbacks

A strange and amazing tale of alcoholism, failure, suicide and crime, and probably the most depressing vintage softcore novel we have come across yet.

Harry Jordon, the narrator, has given up pretty much on all things in his life.  He is a failure as a painter and hated teaching art at college because , well, “those who can’t instruct others.”  So he drinks. To havce money for booze, he works the counter at a small San Francisco diner.

One day, a pretty blonde woman, Helen, walks into the diner. She’s hungover and doesn’t know how she wound up in San Francisco, by bus or train, and her purse is missing. Harry takes her out for a drink, many drinks — they are both alcoholics so have that in common.  She’s escaped the clutches of her wealthy, overbearing mother in San Sierra, whom she lives with as a virtual emotional prisoner after her failed marriage…her estranged husband is somewhere in San Diego, she hasn’t seen him in ten years…

Helen moves in with Harry; he lives in a rooming house and they pass off as man and wife, to keep things “moral.” Helen finds her purse with $200 of traveler’s checks which they use for plenty of booze.

She talks him into painting her nude portrait. He resists, but gives in, and while everything seems like lover’s paradise, the portrait — good in a medicore way — reminds Harry that he’s a failure: “Why couldn’t I be one of the 1 out of 100 who makes a living painting?”  Facing his failures makes Helen face hers and the two fall into a manic depressive state. They are both bi-polar before that symptom had a description.

With no money left to drink, they decide to commit suicide together. They cut their wrists and lie down to sleep and die, but they both wake up only to find the cuts healed and they  feel light-headed. They didn’t know they had to severe arteries.

So they decide to go to a hospital and admit themselves into the mental health ward, the bughouse as it were. Deeming themselves dangers to society, they are admitted on the taxpayer’s bill. After three days, however, Harry leaves but Helen is kept for a weak for more observation.

Reunited, they drink more and get manic. He gets various jobs but he can’t leave her alone in the room otherwise she will go out to bars and have men buy her drinks and he has to fight off angry army guys and sailors.  There’s a lot of graphic violence as Harry fights off other men — he slices up a sailor’s face with a broken beer bottle, and when one man makes a snide remark about Helen, he does considerable damage to the man’s face and bones that the man searches them with a gun, wanting deadly revenge. When he finds Harry and Helen, Harry and Helen tell him to go ahead and shoot them and put them out of their misery. The man is confused, that is not the reaction he expected. He tells them to beg for their lives but they simply turn their backs and say, “Shoot.”

This is one dark novel, not to be read if you are feeling down. There’s a few detailed sex scenes for the sake of Beacon’s genre needs, but, like many of Willeford’s wonderful books, this is 1950s American noir existentialism at its bleakest core, about what happens to thirtysomething men and women who fail at their dreams and wallow in self-pity and gin.

The last paragraph is a nod to Hemiongway’s A Farewell to Arms, and the second to last sentence…well, it throws you off and makes you re-think the whole narrative, and certain passages starts to make more sense…

Black Lizard Books reprinted it in the 80s, calling it “psychological suspense.” Not sure if that’s it, more the tale of bi-polar horror.

Black Mask Books also has an edition.

The Woman Chaser by Charles Willeford (Newstand Library, 1961)

Posted in crime noir, noir fiction, pulp fiction, Vintage Sleaze Paperbacks with tags , , , , on September 24, 2010 by vintagesleazepaperbacks


What is it with vintage sleaze books and having protagonists as used car salesmen in Los Angeles? It worked well in Robert Carney’s excellent Anything Goes, as it does here in this early Willeford novel. And like Anything Goes — both published by Newsstand Library — this is an example of superb literary fiction marketed as softcore smut in the 1960s. Someone at Newsstand had a good eye for writing.

Stylistically, The Woman Chaser is an experimental novel for its time, taking its cue from John Dos Passos’ American Trilogy, with transitions between “chapters” using screenplay format: CUT TOs, WIPEs, DISSOLVES, etc. Near the end, one section takes the form of a short play (Moby-Dick?). At the top, we are presented a third person text, then go to first person as the narrator, Richard Hudson, sees himself in the third person as a different person as he changes his life: he’s a used car salesman for the Honest Hal franchise in San Francisco; he’s come down to Los Angeles to open an Honest Hal lot.  Hudson grew up in L.A., with a diva mother and a father who wrote a “True Grits” jungle that made a lot of money. Her current husband, the narrator’s stepfather, was once a visionary filmmaker in Hollywood, but art in the end did not sell movies and he lots a lot for the studio, so he had to retire from the biz. But Hollywood seems to always lure those who have returned back into the game of moving photo narratives…

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High Priest of California – Charles Willeford (Beacon Book #130, 1953)

Posted in Beacon Books, crime noir, noir fiction, pulp fiction, Vintage Sleaze Paperbacks with tags , , , , , on January 17, 2010 by vintagesleazepaperbacks

The second half of this two-book edition, High Priest of California, now has me hooked on Willeford (note Beacon spelled his name “Williford” on the cover — how’s that for a writer’s first book?).  I discussed Wild Wives last month, it was all right but didn’t make me a fan yet.

The narrator of this fast-paced 30,000-word short novel is used car salesman Russell Haxby.  He has little-to-no morals and scruples, but he is capable of falling in love — or so he tells Alyce, a timid woman he meets at a dance hall one nigh.  As much as Alyce seems interested in romance, she freezes up whenever he kisses her, and doesn’t know much about sex or men or what to do in an intimate situation…

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Wild Wives by Charles Willeford (Beacon, 1956)

Posted in crime noir, pulp fiction, Vintage Sleaze Paperbacks with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 2, 2009 by vintagesleazepaperbacks

Charles Willeford’s orginal title for this quirky private eye yarn was Until I Am Dead, but Beacon Books re-titled it Wild Wives as the seond part of a double book, the reprint of High Priest of California, which had originally appeared in 1953 as the second half of a Royal Giant digest number.

Since both novels are short — c. 30,000 words — they were suitable for one regular-sized 60,000 word paperback.

Wild Wives is dubbed a “First Award Novel” which a number of Beacons from 1956-1958 were, for whatever reason…one will note that Beacon misspelled the author’s name as “Williford.”

This is my first read of Charles Willeford; people have been recommending him to me for years.  It takes me a while sometimes. He certainly has an interesting history as a writer.  Out of the army, he fancied himself a San Francisco beatnik poet, publishing a chapbook in the mid-50s, then turning to novels at age 30, writing the first few in a cheap room at the Powell Hotel on weekends, soaking up the San Francisco lifestyle.

His aim, like many young pulp crime writers then, was Gold Medal, but his books were too short. He found a home at Royal Giant/Beacon, and later Newsstand Library.  He wasn’t prolific.  He used the money to pay for graduate school.  He later went into college teaching, published more poetry and memoir, was re-discovered in the 1970s and 80s, and hit big time with the bestseller turn into a movie, Miami Blues.  In his autumnal years, he enjoyed his re-discovery as a pulp master, wrote more books, and passed away in 1988, age 69.

Since I have not read any other Willefords yet, I cannot say, but have read that Wild Wives is unlike his other novels, being a more “conventional”  noir/crime/gumshoe tale.

The narrator shamus is Jake Blake, San Fran wise-ass tough guy private eye.  In the first chapter, a 15 year old girl points a water pistol at his head then lifts her skirt and bends over, asking to be spanked — already we know that Willeford’s writing is a bit…off-kilter…

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